iPhone 5 Review: Still Awesome After a Month

Thanks to this job, last month I made the jump from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5. My iPhone 4 was feeling tired. The home button was getting a bit testy (I swear they should last longer than a couple years given all the tapping and double-tapping we have to do using iOS) and I was dying for the better 8MP, backside illuminated, awesome camera that was first introduced in the iPhone 4S. I didn’t, however, realize how much I would enjoy the larger screen, how light the iPhone 5 is, its huge performance boost, and the convenience (and speed) of the lightning connector. Yes, after a month into using it, the iPhone 5 is everything people have made it out to be and more.

SpecsDevice Design & BuildScreenPerformance • SoftwareCameraEarPodsLightning ConnectorBatteryDrawbacksFinal Thoughts

The specs

Just to remind you what the iPhone 5 packs under the hood here it is:

iPhone 5 specs:

  • Chip: A6
  • Screen: 4-inch (diagonal) Retina display, 1136-by–640 resolution, 326 ppi
  • Cellular: GSM model: GSM/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, CDMA model: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B, LTE
  • Other wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n; 802.11n on 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and GLONASS
  • Nano-SIM
  • iSight camera (back of phone): 8 megapixel, Backside illumination sensor, Five-element lens, Face detection, Hybrid IR filter, ƒ/2.4 aperture, Panorama
  • FaceTime Camera (front of phone): 1.2MP photos, 720p HD video, Backside illumination sensor Video recording: 1080p HD video recording, 30 fps, Tap to focus while recording, LED light, Improved video stabilization, Take still photos while recording video, Face detection
  • Lightning dock connector
  • Battery: 8 hours talk time on 3G, Browsing 8 hours on 3G, 8 hours on LTE 10 hours on WiFi, 225 hours stand by time (9 days)

As compared to the iPhone 4S:

iPhone 4S specs:

  • Chip: A5
  • Screen: 3.5-inch (diagonal) Retina display, 960-by–640 resolution, 326 ppi
  • Cellular: SM/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA, CDMA EV-DO Rev. A
  • Other wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n; 802.11n on 2.4GHz), Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and GLONASS
  • Micro-SIM
  • iSight camera (back of phone): 8 megapixel, Backside illumination sensor, Five-element lens, Face detection, Hybrid IR filter, ƒ/2.4 aperture, Panorama (equal to iPhone 5)
  • FaceTime Camera (front of phone): VGA resolution photo and video
  • Video recording: 1080p HD video recording, 30 fps, Tap to focus while recording, LED light, Video stabilization
  • 30 pin dock connector
  • Battery: 8 hours talk time on 3G, Browsing 6 hours on 3G, 9 hours on Wifi, 200 hours stand by time (8 days)

Or even the iPhone 4:

iPhone 4 specs:

  • Chip: A4
  • Screen: 3.5-inch (diagonal) Retina display, 940-by–640 resolution, 326 ppi
  • Cellular: GSM model: GSM/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA, DC-HSDPA, CDMA model: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A
  • Other wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n; 802.11n on 2.4GHz), Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, GPS
  • Micro-SIM
  • iSight camera (back of phone): 5 megapixel, Four-element lens, ƒ/2.8 aperture
  • FaceTime Camera (front of phone): VGA resolution photo and video
  • Video recording: 720p HD video recording, 30 fps, Tap to focus while recording, LED light
  • 30 pin dock connector
  • Battery: 7 hours talk time on 3G, Browsing 6 hours on 3G, 10 hours on WiFi, 300 hours stand by time (12.5 days)

Just on the chip side alone there is a huge jump from the A4 to the A6. Remember the A6 (yes, the X version with the quad-core GPU) powers the new iPad 4, and yes, it’s really fast. I’ll get to how fast everything felt in a bit, but just for right now stick with me…it’s fast.

The camera, wow the camera, is another part of the whole spec sheet that you should not undervalue. With the extra oomph under the hood the camera doesn’t just take great pictures, but it takes them faster. Camera apps, I’ve found, seem to really be able to take advantage of the A6 chip.

Bottom line: With all the upgrades in the iPhone 5, especially if you’re coming from an iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS, it feels like an über device.

Device Design

The first thing everyone notices is how light the iPhone 5 is. Not the bigger screen, not how amazingly thin it is, but how light it is. A friend of mine who made the jump from an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 5 said it’s so much smaller and lighter she loses it in her pockets and bag. Once you get over the “wow, it’s light” feeling then you notice form factor. I think Apple resisted the taller form factor for too long. Just comparing my old iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5 (and an old iPhone 3GS we have kicking around), I like how the iPhone 5 feels in my hand much better than the iPhone 4. Yes, the iPhone 4 feels solid, but the iPhone 5 feels elegant. There is something about the extra length, weight, and width that fits really well in my hand. The Apple commercials showing a person’s thumb still able to reach the entire screen? That goes beyond just doing things on the phone, it really comes down to that feeling of the device just sitting in the right spot of your hand.

Fit and finish? Just like you’d expect if you’ve had a previous iPhone, just better and more refined. On the bottom of the case (where the Lightning connector is), the screws are smaller than on previous models, which makes sense, because the device is smaller. The speakers are flush instead of inset like on the iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS. The headphone jack…at the bottom. It probably should have been there all along, if you think about it, since that’s were the speaker and microphone are (for calling). I’ll talk more about the cameras and those mics in a bit, but it’s worth noting that Apple put a mic on the face and on the back of the camera. Why? As the “orchestra” commercial points out, the backside mic helps with noise cancelation, plus the front and backside mics work in tandem for better audio recordings. Where are the mics on previous versions? Just on the top and bottom of the devices. Make a difference? Yes, I believe so. I think calls are clearer on my iPhone 5. Of course most of the time I’m talking to my wife, who is also using an iPhone 5…so we might be getting a double-plus-good clarity bonus there.

The rest of the design, well here are comparisons of the iPhone 4, iPhone 5, and iPhone 3GS. It’s pretty amazing to see how far Apple has come (for reference consider the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S to be the same from the outside, they only differed on the inside):

Iphone5 001

Iphone5 002

Iphone5 003

Bottom line: The fit, finish, and everything about the iPhone 5 is amazing. I wish I weren’t such a klutz or I’d keep it out of its protective case more. In the time I was writing this review I really enjoyed the feel of the device without a case. It just fits.

Screen

If you’re expecting to see a brilliantly better screen compared to the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S, no you’re not going to see that. The screen has the same pixels per inch as the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Resolution wise, it’s a wash I found. That’s okay really because it’s the taller screen that is the improvement. There is something about having more room that just seems to make a noticeable difference in all the apps that I regularly use (which, by the way, have all been updated for the iPhone 5 screen). That extra space…you don’t notice it at first, but using my old iPhone 4 for this review (for various comparisons) things seem crowded.

Bottom line: Like its Retina ancestors, the iPhone 5 has an awesomely gorgeous screen. I think Retina makes a big difference on these smaller devices, maybe less so on the iPads. The bigger screen is just cool and expansive. Having the extra space does make a difference.

Performance

There are lots of parts to the perception of “performance” when you’re using a device. There is the “does the app launch quickly” and then the “does a web site or my mail download quickly” and then “does my app run responsively”. There isn’t just one factor that screams “performance!” when looking at how your device feels like it’s performing. Now, since I’ve been jumping between my iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 for this review I can tell you…yes everything is faster on the iPhone 5. Apps open faster, screens refresh more quickly, spotlight searches on my iPhone 5 are nearly instantaneous, but on my iPhone 4 they lag a bit. There is no getting around the fact that the iPhone 4 has a two-generation older chip than the iPhone 5 and it is noticeable in every aspect of using the phone. If you’re moving from a iPhone 4S to iPhone 5 will you notice? I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to wager…yes you will.

Let’s talk about the two main facets of performance now: apps and connectivity.

Using Apps

For apps, the first step is looking at the GeekBench 2 score. Bottom line, the bigger the number the better. Here is the score from the iPhone 5:

2012 12 01 13 24 44

GeekBench 2: iPhone 5

And the score from the iPhone 4:

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GeekBench 2 iPhone 4

And a score from the iPhone 4S:

GeekBench 2 for iPhone 4S

What this means, is, yes…the iPhone 5 is the fastest app launching, app using iPhone ever. Firing up apps like Blux Camera (which is pretty intense as apps go I’ve found)…are seriously kick butt faster on the iPhone 5 vs the iPhone 4. Using apps, again, noticeably faster. Graphics are smoother, games feel more responsive, all apps (like typing in Mail) don’t have lags while the phone is trying to catch up with your typing (or tapping or swiping).

Connecting and Networking

With the addition of LTE, updated GSM and CDMA protocols, and adding 5GHz WiFi bands…you’re talking about a device that can theoretically connect to the Internet and other devices as fast as possible right now (wirelessly). LTE, is a bit of a moving target for “how fast is fast”. I’ve noticed that when I can get LTE in Vancouver (it’s not equally distributed throughout the city), connections are noticeably faster, however most of the time I’m connecting at 3G speeds. That said, with the updated 3G connections, I find the iPhone connects (and works as a hotspot) faster and more reliably than the iPhone 4. You must temper these with the fact that the iPhone 5 is just a faster device in general. It has the power under the hood to move bits and bytes around faster. So not only does the iPhone 5 have the ability (networking hardware and software in iOS) to connect to the latest and fastest networks, it has the power to take advantage of them.

To show you want I mean here are the results from SpeedTest with the iPhone 4 vs the iPhone 5 connecting to my home network:

2012 12 01 13 27 49

Speedtest, WiFi, iPhone 5

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Speedtest,, WiFi, iPhone 4

You’ll see that sure, they come out close, but ping is generally shorter on the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 is able to use the 5 GHz band to download data faster than the iPhone 4.

For LTE it’s a little tricker (I’ve found) to get consistent results. One thing is the weather. It’s rainy here right now and cell signals (even LTE) degrade in bad weather (weather services have found ways to improve rain forecasts using cell tower response times because of the effect on signals in the rain). Regardless here are some shots of non-WiFi Speedtests from around where I live:

2012 12 01 18 42 21

Speedtest, LTE, iPhone 5

Uploads and downloads are great, notice how slow the ping is. I haven’t tried FaceTime over LTE, but could make FaceTime stuttery. Anecdotally, the upload in progress would jump from 5 to 0, 5 to 0 and the graph looked like a saw tooth. Not sure what that’s all about, but I had it in 4 tests in two separate areas of the city.

Bottom line: If you’re stepping up from an older iPhone you will notice the across-the-board performance boost. Launching apps, using apps, downloading apps, downloading anything, all facets of performance whether it’s the speed of the network or the OS…you notice. LTE? Yeah it’s great when you are in a place that it’s running. I know almost immediately when I’m just on 3G vs LTE.

iOS 6

The iPhone 5 comes with iOS 6 which comes with its own raft of features. Most people have heard of the switch an Apple-owned/powered Maps solution over Google Maps, but by all accounts Maps is getting better. Other great features include Panorama for the camera (we’ll talk about that with the Camera section), Passbook for etickets, boarding passes and loyalty cards, much improved Mail and Safari, Siri improvements, new Notifications features like Do not Disturb, and Facebook integration (like Twitter was in iOS 5). We have a whole section devoted to iOS 6 so you can read more in-depth about iOS 6, but as far as the iPhone 5 goes versus the iPhone 4 I had before, I could finally use Siri and the Panorama mode for photos. Like all the app and performance related aspects of the phone, iOS 6 works more smoothly on the iPhone 5 than the iPhone 4.

Camera

The iPhone 4S camera was a huge improvement over the iPhone 4. Since the iPhone 5 iSight camera (that’s what the camera on the back is called) is spec-for-spec the same as the iPhone 4S, I can say comparing the iPhone 4 vs the iPhone 5…wow. The color, the range, the speed…and Panorama is so, so cool. What you might not think about, however is how much the front-facing FaceTime) camera has been improved. Let me tell you…you notice. If you liked taking pictures with your iPhone 4 you’ll love taking pictures with the iPhone 5. For iPhone 4S users upgrading, you might not notice the images being better, but you’ll notice that the process is faster.

For comparison here are shots from my iPhone 4 and iPhone 5:

Iphone4

Using the iPhone 4 camera, no retouching or adjustments made.

Iphone5

Using the iPhone 5 camera, retouching, adjustments, etc.

FaceTime camera is awesome

In previous iPhones the FaceTime camera has been a basic VGA (640×480) camera. No bells, not a whistle to be heard. Apple realized that if you want to promote FaceTime to people, you can’t have people looking like the undead over FaceTime, so in the iPhone 5 the camera is now a respectable 1.2MP, 720p HD video, backside illuminated wundercamera. Want to see the difference? Here you go, unretouched images (click for the full size):

iPhone 4, FaceTime camera

iPhone 5, FaceTime camera

Notice the grains in the iPhone 4 image? Not to mention it’s just smaller. Still images are one thing, but it’s video that stands out. FaceTime with the iPhone 5 is just super. My sister FaceTimes with me using her iPad 2 and iPhone 4…and I can tell the difference compared to when my wife uses FaceTime with her iPhone 5. Better color, smoother picture, crisp video.

Panorama

Since the iPhone 4S shares the same camera as the iPhone 5, both can shoot panoramas—built into iOS 6—again here the speedier chip helps the iPhone 5 do an amazing job at making gorgeous pictures quickly. Here are a couple panoramas I shot recently:

Vancouver at night

Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver

Even in low light, and if you heed the “slow dow” warnings from the camera, you can get really amazing pictures.

Video

Again, we’re looking at big improvements versus the iPhone 4 (720p HD) and performance improvements with the iPhone 4S (1080p HD). Yes, you can now take a snapshot while shooting video (handy), the stabilizers are supposed to be better, and the video software detects faces now but over all, video is solid and getting better. I’ve shot a little video with the iPhone 5, and intend to do more now that I have a decent tripod mount for it (my mount for the iPhone 4/4S just didn’t seem stable enough), I’ll be shooting more. One downside, I’ve found is that my favorite mic (the iRig mic) doesn’t work with the iPhone 5. It’s the only mic I’ve had a problem with as both my Belkin and iRig mic Cast both work just ducky.

Here’s an example I recorded when I first got my iPhone 5 comparing the video recording versus the iPhone 4 (yes, in the voice over I mention the iPad mini, these were made for that review):

Bottom line: The iPhone 5 backside (iSight) camera is the same as the iPhone 4S, so improvements you see and experience have to do with better under the hood things, rather than optics. The frontside (FaceTime) camera, however, is leaps and bounds better than previous models.

EarPods

Apple has made a big deal about their new EarPods. All hype? Nope, not at all. I always kept a pair of the “default” ear buds in my bag for emergencies, but use them? Yeah, rather not, thank you. These new EarPods, however are comfortable and the do sound better than the older ones. My wife is a big ear bud hater. She just wouldn’t use the originals. She, much to our collective surprise, likes the EarPods. Remember this is a woman whose ear is tuned for music (being an opera singer) and not only does she like how they sound, but how they feel. In fact she’s even started using the EarPods to talk on the phone at home, which, believe me is huge.

Myself, I might not have a tuned ear for music, but I’ve tried a lot of headphones and earbuds. Nope, these aren’t Dr Dre Beats level ear buds, they aren’t even Moshi level either, but they sound better than other “better than basic” pairs I have around (like Skull Candy). I can wear the EarPods for hours and not notice them (well except when I get up and nearly take my device with me). I recently needed to use them all day at a co-working space, and yeah, brilliant sound with all kinds of music (classical, jazz, pop, rock) comfortable and the mic for phone calls (I think) is much better than the previous models.

Plain, old boring ear buds

New cooler EarPods. The “Pods” make all the difference! Note that the controller is bigger with the EarPods.

I would, however, love for someone to show me how to wrap the darn things back in the “convenient carry case”, because I can’t figure it out.

Oh, this is how you do it (thanks Chris!):

Bottom line: Yep, Apple wasn’t kidding, these are great. They don’t have to be relegated to the “emergency backup pair” of ear buds like most ear buds that come with phones are. These are ear buds that you’ll enjoy using.

Lightning Connector

Smaller, no right side or wrong side, and yes even at USB 2.0 speeds, faster, I like the Lightning connector. Beyond the size, I was surprised at how noticeably faster all the devices using the Lightning connector are at syncing and copying. Really. I thought at first, oh it’s just because the iPhone 4 or iPad 3 are slower devices, but no….the iPad mini is faster syncing with the Lightning cable than the iPad 3 and it’s a slower device. Speed improvements aside, it is so, so nice not to have to fumble with which is the right way up with the Lightning connectors. Just plug it in and it works. The connection also feels more solid and secure than the 30 pin connector. It sockets in solidly and feels snug when connected. It’s a welcome improvement over the 30 pin connectors and the speed boost doesn’t hurt either.

Iphone5 004

Battery Life

I’m going to be honest with you here, I haven’t noticed a heck of a lot of difference versus my iPhone 4. Yep, lasts the whole day. If I take a lot of pictures, upload, Facebook, use my phone as a hot spot—especially over LTE—I’ll start sucking through battery really fast. That, however, is just the same as it was with my iPhone 4. Do I get a little longer battery life? I think so, but I have to honestly say that in the time I’ve had the iPhone 5, but my usage patterns are completely different than they were before. Now, I take a lot more pictures (because the camera is so much better), but I’m not using cell data or tethering or calling as much as I was a month ago. What I can say is that I haven’t brought the phone to the sub 10% level more than once or twice in a month. I don’t think I’ve hit 20% most days either before I plug it in at night.

So, better battery? On the whole yes. Mindblowingly so? No.

Drawbacks

While I think this is the best iPhone yet (I kept my wife’s old iPhone 3GS around for music so I have that as my starting point), this isn’t a device without its flaws. There are a few gotchas that you need to just keep in mind.

Lightning adapter quandary

Yep the Lightning adapter is great, but…if you have any older 30 pin accessories you’ll need an adapter to keep using them. I have both the wee adapter that is just the 30 pin in and Lightning out and the adapter that is a cable as well. I use the cable version every night with my alarm clock. Why not the little one? I just think the extra stress of holding the phone up on the adapter isn’t a good idea.

For compatibility, I had high hopes that my 30-pin to VGA adapter would work with my iPad 4…alas it doesn’t. On the whole, however, that’s the only compatibility flaw I’ve run into.

Just keep in mind that if you have other accessories, you might be spending an extra $30 to get adapters to still use them. Third party cables and adapters are just starting to hit the shelves, so Apple won’t be your only choice for long.

Other accessories

There are a raft of other things that go with iPhones that just might not work now. The Ollo clip lenses work…if you shim them or hold them in place (there is an iPhone 5 version coming). Tripod adapters…depending on how they work, may or may not fit the larger sized device. Of course cases made for the 4/4S don’t fit either. If there is a complaint about the new form factor (not unlike the switch from 3GS to 4), it’s that a lot of the older accessories just don’t work anymore.

Final thoughts

What’s it all come down to here? I had my iPhone 4 for a couple years and the iPhone 5 for a month, before that it was a couple different Blackberries (just for perspective here) and this is the best phone I’ve had yet. It was 100% worth the cost to upgrade (early, btw, so I had a “penalty” to pay). The camera is great. The size I think is perfect. It’s fast, responsive and the screen is (still) gorgeous.

Despite the inconvenience of needing an adapter for my clock, a new case, and a couple things that don’t fit anymore (like my Ollo Clip and the Belkin camera grip) it’s a great phone. The iPhone 5 might not be a revolutionary as the first iPhone was or the iPhone 4, but it’s a really solid iteration of the iPhone family. If you have an iPhone 4 or older, certainly worth the upgrade. If you have a iPhone 4S, I would suggest trying an iPhone 5 out in the Apple Store (or a friend’s) when you can really play with it for a bit and see if the improvements are worth the cost of an early upgrade. The iPhone 4S is still a solid phone and if the cost of an early upgrade (assuming you didn’t pay full price for an unlocked one) doesn’t balance out with what you think you’ll gain, then holding off would be a smart move.

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